Chalice

Page 1

PART ONE

Because she was Chalice she stood at the front door with the Grand Seneschal, the Overlord’s agent and the Prelate, all of whom were carefully ignoring her. But she was Chalice, and it was from her hand the Master would take the welcome cup.

From the front door of the House, at the top of the magnificent curling sweep of stair, she could see over the heads of the crowd. The rest of the Circle stood stiffly and formally at the foot of the stair with the first Houseman and the head gardener, but nearly the entire citizenry of the demesne seemed to have found an excuse to be somewhere in or near the House or lining the long drive from the gates today.

Their new Master was coming home: the Master thought lost or irrecoverable. The Master who, as younger brother of the previous Master, had been sent off to the priests of Fire, to get rid of him. Third and fourth brothers of Masters were often similarly disposed of, but the solitary brother of an unmarried Master without other Heir should not have been dealt with so summarily. So the Master had been told. But the two brothers hated each other, and the younger one was given to the priests of Fire. That had been seven years ago.

A little over six years later the Master died, still without other Heir. The Grand Seneschal had sent immediately to the priests of Fire to say that there was urgent need of the younger brother of the Master of Willowlands, for the Master had died without having produced a son. Such a request—a plea—had never been made before. Once someone has gone to the Elemental priests, they do not return.

But a demesne must have its Master. And a change of family, of bloodline, in any demesne, upsets all, often for generations, till the new family has settled into its charge. The nearest other living relative of the old Master of Willowlands was a fourth cousin who had already married someone unsuitable and had three children by her. The priests of Fire said they would see what they could do, but they promised nothing. The younger brother of the old Master had just crossed into the third level, and by the third level Elemental priests can no longer live among ordinary humans.

But six weeks ago the Grand Seneschal had received another message from the priests of Fire: that the Master of Willowlands was coming home. It would not be an easy Mastership, and the priests were not sure it was even possible, but the Master himself felt the responsibility to his demesne, and he was determined to try.

Mirasol—straining her eyes toward the gate, partly as a way to ignore the three men who were ignoring her—remembered the younger brother: his strength of purpose, his feeling of obligation to the demesne, his feeling for the demesne. It was what the brothers had quarrelled about. The elder brother had loved the power of the Mastership, not its duties, and he was not the least willing to bear lectures on his behaviour from his younger brother. She wasn’t surprised the younger brother was coming home, even from the third level of the priesthood of Fire.

She had dreamed of the message to the Grand Seneschal the night before it arrived: she had felt the fire and smelt the burning. She knew the Master would come. She knew too that the smell of burning was a warning, but she did not know of what. Might the demesne itself burn, or its new Master?

She could see only a little way down the drive as it curved toward the gates half a league distant. But she could see when people better placed than she for first sight of the arrival stiffened and stared. The three men standing with her drew themselves to attention.

She could hear carriage wheels now.

It will be all right, she told herself. It must be all right. She settled her shoulders with a tiny, invisible shake, and fractionally raised her chin.

Six horses drew the coach: four of them coal-black, clinker-black, two of them ashy grey. The coach itself was also black, but black was always fashionable among the great and grand and would draw no comment. But the curtains at these windows were drawn closed, and they too were black. A light flickered behind them, red and wavering, like firelight.

Again she smelt burning, but she did not know if she imagined it.

The welcoming of a new Master was a time of rejoicing. The ceremony of investiture was the official occasion, and after the rites were done there was an enormous banquet with musicians and dancing for everyone who belonged to the demesne—and for anyone else from any other demesne who wished to join in the festivities at the price of some enthusiastic contribution to toasts and cheers and acclamations. But the informal arrival of a Master should still be a happy moment. And she knew she was not the only person present who felt that the brothers had been born in the wrong order: it was the younger who would have made the better Master from the beginning.

But no one clapped or called. No one smiled. It was as if everyone was holding their breath.

The coach stopped in front of the House, where the gravel had been raked in a perfect circle, a symbol of good luck. Any coach wheels and any horses’ hooves would have broken the circle, splintered the careful spiral; that it should be so broken was a part of the welcome, like opening and pouring out the contents of a bottle of wine. There was no reason for her to feel uneasy, watching the horses dance as they halted, kicking pebbles every way, to feel that something fragile and vital was being destroyed.

The body of the coach rocked on its wheels, and little spurts of gravel pattered out from under them.

Then the door opened.

Perhaps she imagined the cloud of darkness like smoke that billowed out; no one else reacted, and she bit down on her own gulp of astonishment. And of sudden fear. She remembered the younger brother. She had not known him—it was not for such a one as she had been to know the Master’s family—but she had known a good deal of him. She had known more of him than of the Master, before the Master sent him away, because he was the one who rode or walked round the demesne, seeing that the fields and woods grew and throve, and the temples and places of power were serene and well tended. He was not tall and handsome and flashing-eyed like his older brother, but there was kindness and grace in him, and intelligence in his unremarkable brown eyes.

She knew little of the Elemental priests, nothing of their initiations, and only folk-tales of what the priesthoods did and were capable of. She knew that Fire frightened her worst, more than Earth or Air. And the Fire priests themselves had said that Willowlands’ new Master could no longer live among ordinary humans.

As the coach door swung back, one of the House servants jumped forward as if suddenly recalling himself, and lowered the steps. Two figures climbed carefully down. They both wore black capes with hoods that hid their faces, but they carried themselves and moved and looked around as anyone might. As any ordinary human might.

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